“Dravidian style was developed and perfected under the Cholas.” Discuss Chola architecture in the light of the above statement. “चोल शासन के अन्तर्गत द्रविड़ शैली का संपूर्ण विकास हुआ।“ उपरोक्त वक्तव्य के सन्दर्भ में च़ोल वास्तुकला की विवेचना कीजिए। [UPPSC, 1999]

“Dravidian style was developed and perfected under the Cholas.” Discuss Chola architecture in the light of the above statement. “चोल शासन के अन्तर्गत द्रविड़ शैली का संपूर्ण विकास हुआ।“ उपरोक्त वक्तव्य के सन्दर्भ में च़ोल वास्तुकला की विवेचना कीजिए। [UPPSC, 1999]


The Chola rule in South India represents a period of high culture, classicism in the arts – architecture, sculpture and painting and the fine arts of music and dance – and a literary output in Tamil consisting of poetry, prose and drama as well as religious literature of enduring impact in social and cultural life.

Temple Architecture

  • Architecture reached its zenith in the Chola period. They built enormous temples. These were of monumental style. The Dravidian style of architecture reached its perfection under the Cholas.
  • While Pallava temples are mostly located in and around Kanchipuram, Chola temples are concentrated further south, around Tanjore.
    • Chola temples do not show a simple or straight forward evolution from the earlier Pallava temples and in fact reflect certain new features.
    • Inscriptions indicate that many brick temples of Pallava times were rebuilt in stone during this period.

  • Rajarajeshwara temple at Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram temple were classic examples of Chola art grandeur.

Features of Chola temple architecture:

  • Basic part of the temples which housed the deity was Garbhagriha. Garbhagriha shows change in ornamentation from earlier period.
  • Vimanas were important part of the temple. They assumed massive size during this period. The vimana of Brihadeshwar temple represents the summit in the development of the Vimanas. Vimanas are pyramidical in shape and exhibits perfection of placing storey after storey.
  • Features of early phases:
    • Temples were not massive rather moderate in size.
    • Temples made up of stones and no brick was used.
    • Temple consisted mainly 2 parts-
      • Garbhagriha
      • Ardhamandap.
    • The super structure above Garbhagriha is a tower structure but the tower structure is not massive.
    • Ground plan is in general square.
    • The shape of super structure is pyramidal.
    • Absence of Gopuram.
    • Dwarpala figures engraved on both sides of entrance in some temples.
    • Other figures like animal figures on wall but limited.
    • Some important temples:
      • Shiva temple at Narttamalai
      • Brahmapureshvara temple
      • Balsubramaniyam temple
      • Nageshwar temple
      • Vijayala Choleshwar temple
      • Sundareshwar temple
  • Features of later phases:
    • Massive Vimanas
      • Height of the Vimana in Raja Rajeshwar temple (Brihadeshwar temple) in Tanjore, built by Raja Raja I in early 11th century is about 200 feet.
      • Height of Vimana of Shiva temple Gangaikondacholapuram built by Rajendra I is about 180 feet.
    • Temple complex present
    • Gopurams (Gateways) was the new feature added.
    • Nandi pavillion/ Nandi Mandap
    • Pillared Mandapas continued from Pallava period. Nandi pavilion was enlarged.
    • The elaboration of the temple’s structure with additional pillared halls, enclosures, subsidiary shrines in the courtyard and gopurams added to the horizontal magnification. Courtyard became more spacious and represented horizontal magnificence.
    • Construction of subsidiary shrines gained momentum.
    • Thousand pillar mandap
      • huge mandap having many rows of pillars and this is in Shiva temple of Gangaikondacholapuram. This became a common feature in later phases.
    • Chariot shaped mandap/ temple chariot (in Shiva temple Chidambaram)
    • Expansion of sculptural ornamentation
    • More refined Dwarpala figures
    • Mahamandapa (in Raja Rajeshwar temple)
    • Sculptural ornamentation mainly on exterior wall. This ornamentation is more sophisticated
    • Ground plan is square/ rectangular
      • Ground plan of Vimana is square and ground plan of Gopuram is rectangular.
    • Shiva temple Chidambaram has an impressive and tall Gopuram (bigger than Brihadeshwara and Gangaikondacholapuram temple)
    • Chola rulers installed statues of kings inside temple complex. e.g. Raja Rajeshwar temple
      • This promoted the cult of king as Godhead.
    • Some important temples:
      • Raja Rajeshwar Temple (Tanjore)
      • Shiva temple- Gangaikondacholapuram
      • Shiva temple- Chidambaram
      • Airavateshwar temple- Darasuram

The evolution of Chola temple architecture can be divided into a number of phases:

Earliest phase:

  • The earliest phase is represented by Shiva temple at Narttamalai:-
    • Also called Vijayalaya Choleeswaram temple, was built by the Chola king Vijayalaya in the mid-9th century.
    • It consists of a vimana (the sanctum and its superstructure), joined to an ardha-mandapa (the hall preceding the sanctum), which has two rows of three pillars.
    • The main shrine is surrounded by six subsidiary shrines known as parivaralayas.
    • The sanctum is circular and contains a linga and yoni.
    • The outer walls have relatively little sculptural ornamentation but two dwarapalas flanked the western entrance.
    • The walls have pilasters, but there are no niches containing images of deities as is common in later Chola temples.

Second phase:

  • The second phase is represented by temples built during the reigns of Aditya I (871 – 907 CE) and Parantaka I (907 – 955 CE).
  • Some important temples of this phase are
    • the Brahmapureshvara temple,
    • the Nageshvarasvami temple, and
    • the Koranganatha temple.
  • The Brahmapureshvara temple:
    • It consists of an ardhamandapa joined to the vimana.
    • Inverted lotuses are carved along the lower part of the outer walls.
    • The frieze of lions along the base of the temple is a typical feature of Chola temples.
    • Pilasters divide the outer walls into niches known as devakoshthas, which contain images of various deities including Ganesha, Durga Mahishasuramardini, and Brahma.
    • Representations of deities and mythological scenes, including those from the Ramayana, appear on the outer walls.
  • The Nageshvarasvami temple:
    • It consists of a joined ardhamandapa and vimana.
    • Deeply carved representations of deities appear in the pilastered niches.
  • The Koranganatha temple:
    • It is similar in basic structure, except for the addition of an antarala between the vimana and ardhamandapa.
    • The frieze along the outer base consists of rows of inverted lotuses, and there are also rows of lions and elephants.
    • The sculpted figures are more heavily ornamented than in other temples of this period.

Third phase:

  • The third phase of Chola temple architecture is associated with Shembiyan Mahadevi, a queen who was a major patron of temple building during the reigns of her husband Gandaraditya (949–57 CE), her son Uttama I (969–85 CE), and in the early part of Rajaraja I‘s reign.
    • A large number of older brick temples were rebuilt in stone during this period.
    • A major change is noticeable in the nature of sculpted figures, which appear rather stiff and lifeless.
    • An example of a temple built at the instance of Shembiyan Mahadevi is the Agastyeshvara temple at Anangapur.


  • In the next phase, the culmination of Chola temple architecture is represented by the Brihadishvara temple at Tanjavur. It contains following features:
    • With an approximately 60 m (about 200 feet) tall vimana and a towering, pyramidal shikhara, this Shiva temple was one of the largest and most grand structures of its age, displaying certain new architectural features.
    • The main shrine consists of a pillared porch, a pillared mukhmandapa & ardhamandapa, an antarala and the sanctum.
    • Ornamentation of the outer walls is much more profuse than in earlier shrines.
    • The niches are deep and projecting, and the figures they frame are carved in the round. The lower niches mostly contain representations of Shiva in his various manifestations, including Nataraja. One of the upper levels has 30 representations of Shiva as Tripurantaka, destroyer of three cities.
    • Three huge Shiva sculptures and many paintings are located in the circumambulatory passage around the sanctum.
    • In front of the temple is an almost 6 m long Nandi bull carved out of a single stone, later enclosed in a pavilion.
    • The temple stands within a huge rectangular enclosure. On the east are two imposing temple gateways (gopuras), the lower part of which is made of stone, the upper storey of brick.
    • The figures carved on the gopuras are more heavy and ornamented than in earlier temples.

Last phase of Chola temple architecture (12th–13th centuries):

  • The gopura became more dominant than the vimana.
  • This is evident in the Shiva temple at Chidambaram, which was mostly built during the reigns of Kulottunga I (1070–1122 CE) and his successors. Wheels and horses were added to the outer walls of the temple, to give it the appearance of a chariot. ©


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